Chapter 1 “The sea was all around” (1890–1909)
When I was young I could follow an underground stream, in Provincetown on Cape Cod where I spent much of my youth, with assurance and precision. It flowed out of a pond a mile back, traversed part of the town, flowed under our house, and finally emerged below high water mark.
Richard Perry Bush, a short man wearing a tall silk hat, was on his way home from a funeral. If he didn’t like funerals, it didn’t show. He officiated at two, sometimes three funerals a week in Chelsea, an industrial city near Boston. In the 1890s Chelsea was a place where old Americans and new immigrants collided. As he walked down Broadway, Chelsea’s main avenue, friends and well-wishers hailed him. It seemed he couldn’t go more than a few feet without seeing someone he knew. He brought a sunny outlook to life, which was probably why he was in such demand for funerals. He seemed always ready to speak a comforting word. A tolerant and civic-minded minister, he had a sense of poetry, yet was practical and no pushover. A fellow minister said, “His manliness was his power.”1
Perry wore a moustache and long sideburns. He had narrow, dark hooded eyes, a small mouth, a broad, sharp nose and coarse hair strenuously parted near the middle of his head. He was born in 1855 in Provincetown, a scenic
but declining fishing and trading center at the tip of Cape Cod, smack on the Atlantic Ocean. The Pilgrims had first stopped at the tip of the cape in 1620 before forming a permanent settlement in Plymouth. Fishing drew the Pilgrims back to the tip each year, and Provincetown was incorporated in 1727. By the Revolutionary War, however, it had just 205 inhabitants and 36 families.
Though isolated, Provincetown seemed to give its residents a window on the world. From High Pole Hill in town, some thought they could see the whole world. Visiting Provincetown about the time of Perry’s birth, Henry Thoreau wrote that the “dry land itself came through and out of the water in its way to the heavens.”2
As a boy in Provincetown, Perry felt “the sea was all around [him]. It was his playmate. It was his inspiration. Something of the moods of the sea were always with him.” The sea had sustained his ancestors for as far back as he knew. His father, also Richard Perry, was a sea captain whose own ancestors (and those of his wife) stretching back six generations were among Massachusetts’ earliest settlers, well established a century before the American Revolution. Most of this self-reliant crowd earned their living from the sea: traveling to Africa, South America and other exotic ports of call; whaling; trading; bankrolling the voyages of others. The elder Richard, born in 1828 and also raised in Provincetown, went to sea at an early age. In his prime he commanded both fishing and cargo vessels, “winning for himself a high reputation for uprightness and attention to business.”3
The vagaries of the seafaring trade meant the Bush family was comfortable but not wealthy. Perry sailed as a cook on a fishing boat at the age of 14, just four years after the Civil War. He did not aspire to a life at sea, however. He was smitten instead with religious feeling, though he turned his back on his parents’ strict Methodist creed. Such religious rifts were common in Provincetown. When Methodism first attracted some residents in the 1790s and they began to build a church, rival faiths were jealous. A mob tore down the frame of the building, built a bonfire with the wood and burned an effigy of the Methodist preacher.
Perry was drawn to a cooler, more temporal spirituality, yet one that was still muscular. His religious journey, however, took him away from Provincetown. Bent on becoming a minister, he attended Tufts College, an academically rigorous school in Medford, Massachusetts, founded by the liberal Universalist faith. A boyhood friend named John Vannevar joined Perry at Tufts, making the break with his family easier.
It took courage for Perry to leave his family and strike out on his own. “I left my home while yet a boy to seek my fortune in the world,” he later recalled.
“Going out from home I lost the tie that might have bound me” to family traditions. It also meant fending more for himself. To help pay his school bills, Perry supplied wealthier students with coal for the stoves in their rooms. He carried the fuel himself, sometimes climbing three flights of stairs to make a delivery, the coal on his back.4
In 1879, Perry graduated from the divinity school and then moved to the nearby town of Everett, where he spent 13 years as a pastor. Building a life with little family help gave him “a lot of sympathy for anybody struggling with any kind of difficulty.” In 1892, he went to Chelsea, becoming the pastor of the Church of the Redeemer, a 50-year-old Universalist church. Perry arrived at his new post with his wife, Emma Linwood Paine, the daughter of a prominent Provincetown family and the mother of their three children. Edith, the oldest, was ten. Reba was five. The third and youngest child was a one-year-old boy. Born on March 11, 1890, the boy was named Vannevar, after Perry’s lifelong pal.5
In Chelsea, Perry quickly emerged as a civic leader. “A man of strong convictions, he had a remarkable power for making friends.” His religious convictions helped. Universalism, a Protestant offshoot with affinities to the Deism of Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionary-era figures, held that all men will be saved, no matter what their earthly actions. The faith flourished in 18th-century England, then spread to the colonies. By the late 19th century, Universalists espoused a belief in a single God and rejected the idea of Christ’s divinity and the Trinity. Adherents possessed an ecumenical spirit rare for the times and an appetite for social action. Perry himself “was always loyal to his church, but mankind was more important than any church, and when he was called upon to help he never stopped to ask as to a man’s creed, or race, or color, but only as to his need and the way in which he might be comforted or helped.”6
Perry’s Universalist creed made him sensitive to the swift and unsettling changes occurring in his city of 40,000. Through the Civil War, Chelsea remained largely rural and was dominated by a few landowners. Its people intensely supported the Yankees in the conflict, sending 1,000 men into battle by the time of Lee’s surrender. After the war, Chelsea emerged as a summer resort, catering to wealthy Bostonians and gaining a reputation as perhaps the poshest of Boston’s suburbs. But in the last third of the century Chelsea’s population quadrupled, and business, attracted by the easy connections to Boston proper, thrived. By 1880, 150 manufacturing firms were located in the city. Within a decade, the number had doubled and business investment had quadrupled.7
The boom drastically changed the character of Chelsea. Many of those
wishing larger residences had moved to Brookline, Newton and other nearby towns. By the turn of the century, thousands of immigrants had taken their places, prompting one oldtimer to moan: “How was it possible for a city of wealth, with a population of ten to fifteen thousand, to change in so short a time to a business and manufacturing community with a population of forty thousand, including ten thousand Hebrews?”
Some of the old stock remained, of course. Perry himself lived in the middle-class Irish and Yankee part of Chelsea, located across the Boston & Albany and Boston & Maine railroad tracks from Jewish immigrants and impoverished newcomers. He did not retreat into his besieged Anglo-Saxon world but rather saw Chelsea’s social upheaval as an opportunity to break down ethnic and religious walls. He mixed with all kinds. With a local priest, he campaigned to “tame” the city’s saloonkeepers. He regularly exchanged pulpits with a rabbi. And Perry’s interests weren’t always so lofty. He was a sharp pool player and knew his way around the city’s seamy side. No teetotaler, he once forbade a friend to indulge in alcohol even as he swigged a drink (on the presumption, apparently well-grounded, that the friend couldn’t hold his liquor). And he didn’t browbeat his parishioners, but sometimes won them over through guile. Once asked by a mother to counsel her wayward son, Perry gained the boy’s respect by beating him at a game of billiards.8
Chelsea’s schools gave Perry the means to satisfy his desire for social betterment. For 27 years, he served on the city’s school committee, helping to manage the ballooning enrollment, which rose by 50 percent in the ten years beginning in 1895. Perry also supported progressive education, taking the unusual step in 1900 of teaching English to foreign-language students from the ages of 10 to 14. Within six years, the program had grown from one class of 25 pupils to four classes with a total of 100 students. “The school is a beehive,” the committee wrote in its annual report of 1906. “Nowhere else in the city is found greater intensity of interest on the part of the pupils, or more heart or grateful response to the demands of the teachers.”
In general, the quality of the city’s teachers was a source of pride. Perry and his fellow board members insured high standards by not allowing “political influence” to contaminate hiring practices. “In no city in the state, perhaps, has this evil been so thoroughly eradicated as here,” The Chelsea Gazette wrote in 1908.
Perry was an active Mason, reputed to have achieved “literary” success on the strength of his Masonic writings, which one admirer claimed were “accepted as authority in this country and many parts of Europe.” He also wrote poetry,
usually devoted to spiritual themes. The writing was passionate, but didactic and usually lacking in lyricism. Son Vannevar once confessed, “I fear that my father was not much of a poet.”9
But Perry could make a point. In “Fame,” for instance, he suggested the folly of worldly achievement:
And so I thought, it is in life:
We write in snow on walls of Fame,
But other snows come drifting fast
And for a while another’s name
Gleams out before the gaze of men,
All bright and flowing for a day;
Then it in turn is lost to sight,
In turn to others it gives way.
Sometimes, Perry’s verse lapsed into sentimentality. In “Children’s Sunday,” he wrote:
Hail once more this happy Sabbath,
Gladdest day in all the year;
When about the holy altar,
Children fair in joy appear.
Little ones, we love them dearly,
Stars they are in earth’s dark night;
Angels sent to us from heaven,
Bearing messages of light.
These verses were designed to succor the downhearted, commemorate friends and colleagues, uplift spirits and fix minds on the promise of a better day. Perry was an optimist. He saw life as a challenge to be met and overcome; a game to be won. In “Four Pictures of Life,” Perry brooded about man’s predicament, taking a youth through the “happy time” of hope, the “awful barrier” of destiny, the “tears and white-robed Sorrow” of despair. But the final phase he baldly described as “Victory,” when “the storm that beat upon our youth is gone.” The “fire” of adversity “purifies” the nature of youth, giving birth to a “manly strength.”
And man—not youth—against the wrong hath striven
Despair lies vanquished at the feet of Love,
And Faith proclaims the victory of Heaven.10
Perry’s ornamented poems seemed almost understated compared to his arcane speeches. He was in demand as a dinner speaker at Masonic gatherings and once gave the keynote address at a ceremony attended by President Teddy Roosevelt. The occasion was the groundbreaking for the Pilgrim Memorial Monument in August 1907. Perry toasted the Pilgrims who “dared and died for principle” and declared, “We hold it as our conviction that when they went forth from England it was in obedience to a heavenly vision and a divine command.” He went on to toast his country (for its “amalgamation of all races and peoples leavened by the spirit of the Pilgrim, the Puritan and the Virginian cavalier”) and then Roosevelt. Any U.S. president was “exalted above every other potentate of earth,” but the sitting president stood alone. “Never since the birth of our Republic [did a president have] so strong a hold upon the confidence and respect of the American people as the present incumbent of the Presidential chair.”11
Perry frequently lectured on secular subjects for a fee, waxing philosophical about camaraderie and country. He was a liberal, but believed in frankly admitting the differences between people, not simply hiding them. “I want no man to tolerate me and I do not tolerate any man,” he once said. “The word tolerate has no place in [Masonry] because when we enter the Lodge room we put aside our differences and creeds and meet upon a common basis. No—I believe in brotherhood but I do not believe in toleration. I believe in equality of man with man, in manly fashion.” While sympathetic to progressive values, Perry was suspicious of “do-gooders.” Once on a visit to Niagara Falls, he impressed his son by angrily replying to the suggestion of another tourist that water from the falls not be diverted for electric power. Perry countered that doing so spared people from working as miners. (The encounter impressed Vannevar, who grew up thinking that do-gooders “often pose a holier than thou attitude which is maddening.”)12
Of all Perry’s fascinations, Freemasonry was probably the oddest. His own father and grandfather were Masons, and he frequently discoursed on the oddities of the sect’s rites and history. As a youth he strayed from Masonry, he admitted, but he returned to the fold and held fast to his allegiance: “Early in my career as a Mason, I think, I doubted somewhat the antiquity of the institution. There are some inconsistencies in our ritual; but, as I have looked into the archives, as I have had a little of access to the lore of our Craft, I am more than convinced that we are the lineal descendants of the dusty sons of old Egypt of long, long before the Christian era.”
The mysteries of Masonry might seem strange to others, he allowed, but faith always inspired unusual rituals:
Always man has worshipped; instinctively the knee is bent and the face is turned towards the blue arch. The heart naturally bows in prayer. But we cannot worship in abstractions; we must have forms, and symbols; and men have sought out these from the rudest carving of the idol-maker to the grandeur and magnificence of the modern Lodge-room, and of cathedrals. So it was that, as we traced the architecture, we traced also the history of building; and out of that history we find what brought forth Masonry, as also, what brought forth the church.13
To later ears, Perry’s speeches would seem flowery, almost overwrought. But contemporaries found “his language was choice and his thought was always presented with a clearness and force, a simplicity and conviction that ranked him as one of the most delightful and eloquent speakers of his time.” The secret to his patter, he said, was careful planning. One should never start a speech, he advised, “unless you clearly have in mind the sentence with which you are going to conclude.”
A good speaker, though, still must think on his feet. “When you are making a speech your mind is in three parts,” Perry once advised his son. “One is paying attention to your actual wording at the moment. Another is roaming ahead to plan what you will say next. A third is following behind, picking up slips you may have made. Suppress that third part or it will get you into trouble.”
Bush learned much about speaking from his father, even copying his delivery. Once Bush even regaled his father, along with a gathering of friends, by imitating his “language, gestures, subject matter, all of which I knew fully well. Dad was the first to tumble as to what was going on. He caught my eye and then subsided so as not to give me away. Then I could see one member after another nudge his neighbor as he caught on. I ended with a peroration which was my dad all over—gestures, resonances, and all, which I could reproduce with some accuracy by that time. It was not a caricature. It was an imitation, and one that expressed my pride in my father.”14
The Bushes lived in the church parsonage on Clark Street for much of Perry’s tenure in Chelsea. The family was frugal. Mother Emma hailed from a successful Provincetown family—her father, Lysander N. Paine, was an important merchant who formed a bank in town—but she had simple tastes. She was not, for instance, much of a cook. Visitors to her kitchen politely described her meals as “a little bit thin.” Towering over her short husband, she was quiet and easygoing and “an unusually fine woman,” one friend recalled. “Her face had the beauty that comes only from a kind heart and compassion for others.” Still, any minister’s wife had it hard; she was invariably scrutinized by her
husband’s congregation. “The parishioners felt it their perfect right, if not their duty, to act as judge and jury for the minister’s wife. Her mode of dress, her housekeeping, her actions, speech—in fact almost everything she did or did not do—was subject to their critical scrutiny.” But Emma “was so lovable . . . that no one had anything critical or unkind to say of her.”
Emma ran her house on a tight budget because Perry’s parish income barely covered basic needs. He often presided over weddings for extra cash, winning himself the nickname “Marrying Minister” among fellow Universalist clergy. The weddings “put him in a different financial class from the rest of us,” a colleague recalled. Perry usually held weddings in the living room of his home. The Bush children sometimes served as witnesses or even well-wishers. But they disliked this duty and often fled in advance of a wedding party.15
Through his many activities, Perry became one of the best-known men in Chelsea. According to local lore, one couple on their way to the altar simply asked a hack driver to take them to the minister. They seemed to have forgotten his name. No matter. The hack went at once for Perry, “possibly from force of habit or perhaps he too felt that only Perry Bush could perform the ceremony properly.”
Perry was sought out in sorrow as well as joy. After a great fire devastated Chelsea in 1913—it destroyed much of the city, including Perry’s church—a friend from Boston searched for him amid the confusion. He wandered aimlessly until he asked a youth where he could find Dr. Bush.
“Never heard of him,” the man said.
“How long have you lived in Chelsea?”
“All my life.”
“And you don’t know Dr. Bush?”
“Nope. No Dr. Bush in Chelsea, you can bet your boots.”
“Well I happen to know better. Perry Bush has—”
“Perry Bush! Why in thunder didn’t you say so? Know Perry Bush. Everybody knows Perry Bush. [He’s] up there in the schoolhouse.”
And there his friend found him, helping the poor people of his city pull themselves together and carry on.16
Perry expected his children to be grateful for what they had and not to dwell on what they lacked. He had “a kind of fearlessness in the conflicts of the world,” which made him seem stoic at times. When son Vannevar was five, he joined his father at a funeral, only to break down in tears during the service. On the way home, Perry stopped his son’s crying by saying, “We’ve paid our
respects to our dear friend, and we’ll have happy memories of him. There’s nothing more to be done.” The younger Bush never forgot the lesson.17
The stiff upper lip suited Vannevar. By his own account, he was “not a particularly husky youngster” and was bedeviled by a series of illnesses. Rheumatic fever, which at first seemed to have weakened his heart, left him “cursed” with rheumatism, so that “for years . . . occasionally I had to drag a leg behind me.” He suffered typhoid fever, possibly from drinking fetid well water. He ruptured an appendix. He also caught “the usual childhood” sicknesses.
All in all, Bush was “ill a good deal of the time.” He spent one teenage year bedridden. “At the time I know I thought most about the way in which it interrupted my school and my usual pleasures,” he later recalled. But there were “many pleasant days when I could read, and do puzzles, and learn to do new things with my hands, and I remember the friends who came to see me and talk to me.” During his forced idleness, he “learned to knit, to make tatting, and do all sorts of queer things,” including whittle.18
Compensating for a sickly childhood, Bush grew self-reliant, confident and pugnacious. He occasionally fought with other youngsters, some as far away as East Boston, and once returned home with “a somewhat damaged nose.” There was more to his combativeness than mere bravado. He was fiercely independent, a budding maverick. “In my youth I had been taught that the most independent thing in existence was a hog on ice, and I emulated a hog on ice,” he later wrote.19
He also suffered snubs, inspired by class and religious affiliation. This only seemed to embolden him, filling him with an outsider’s scrappy pride and an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. The town YMCA, for instance, barred Catholics and Jews as well as liberal Protestants such as his family. “As the net result of that, my boyhood friends were the Catholics and the Jews,” Bush said. “I was not only not a Boston Brahmin, I acquired a very considerable set of prejudices against them. . . . My prejudices were all in the direction that I thought I belonged with the Catholics and the Jews, some of the fellows that were out of luck otherwise. I didn’t have much use for the gang that lived up at the [wealthier] end of town.”20
He was too independent to curry favor with schoolmates, though he was elected vice-president of his junior-high-school class. He did not take to those who put on airs and enjoyed “mixing it up with anyone” who showed “a touch of [the] stuffed shirt.” More a budding despot than a politician, he did not like to be told what to do. He credited his ship-captain forebears for instilling in him “some inclination to run a show once I was in it.”
Bush saw life on the sea as a model for terrestrial society. As a boy he explored the coast along Cape Cod alone on a motorboat. He learned the ins and outs of boat-building from grandfather Lysander, who though in his seventies still ran businesses in Provincetown. He dreamed of sailing his own ship across “the high seas.” For entertainment he read old whaling logs over and over. Even more than the sheer adventure of whaling, the logs taught him about leadership and group dynamics. “The relations between the captain and the mate, during voyages that lasted for years, strained human nature to the utmost,” he wrote, “and it also produced some queer by-products.”21
And some sound lessons too. He learned that successful captains were autocratic; that they met all kinds of people and did so on their own terms; that they could lose everything on a gamble but were richly rewarded for success; and that they demanded loyalty, even deference, from subordinates, but were fiercely loyal and protective of those who stood by them.
Bush had captaincy in his blood. In her prime Perry’s mother, who lived in the Bush home, ran a shipping business with her husband. The couple specialized in trade with the West Indies; Perry’s father captained the ship, while wife Mary Willis kept the accounts. Now and again she took to the sea herself and once sailed across the Atlantic and up the Amazon River. Mary was an intense force in the Bush home. Even after losing her sight late in life, “she would not quit” fighting.
Bush showed his own “spark of belligerency.” He was quick to take exception to things. Even his own first name, with its Dutch pronunciation (Vuh-NEE-ver), irritated him. “The strange name” was “a nuisance,” always requiring an explanation or a quick lesson in pronunciation. Bush wished his father had named him John, after the first name of his friend, and his sisters indeed called him John at times.
His name may have been the only mistake he ever pinned on his father. Perry’s influence on his son was obvious, and Bush celebrated it. “When I think of teachers who have molded my own patterns of thought, I think at once of my father,” he later wrote. “I acquired much from him, although I hardly realized it at the time.”22
Sister Edith also influenced Vannevar. A math whiz, Edith joined the faculty of Chelsea’s high school after graduating with honors from Jackson College (the sister school of Tufts) in 1903. A member of the school’s math department, she taught trigonometry. One year brother Vannevar ended up in her class. He was no slouch, grasping her lessons with an uncommon alacrity. Math was his best subject, but Edith tried to keep her brother humble by calling him only “a good student.”
Edith’s talents fueled Bush’s desire to excel in math. The siblings competed against each other in card and parlor games. They were worthy adversaries. Edith was just as “stiff-necked” as her brother and “inclined to be very fussy about rules and regulations.” She was also something of a tomboy, often fishing, sailing and swimming. She had her own ambitions too. After eight years of high-school teaching, she became principal of Provincetown High School. Two years later, in 1920, she joined Jackson College as a math instructor. The following year she was named an assistant professor. She taught at the school until 1952.23
Bush had a talent that separated him from his smart sister: he also could work adeptly with his hands. Using his hands was as important to Bush as using his mind. In school, he ran track and sang in his father’s church choir, but he preferred visiting the shop over any other leisure activity not related to the sea. For a boy with his inclinations, Chelsea proved to be a hospitable place. The city’s schools offered an elaborate curriculum in sewing, woodworking, basketweaving and drawing. Altogether, students spent two to three hours a week on these and other “manual arts.”
For educators, this was not window-dressing or simply a vocational program for those destined to earn their living as skilled workmen. Teachers were “convinced that by doing things, the child is developing that part of his brain which can only be developed by using his hands,” according to one school report. “Sometimes, for lack of interest in book studies, we find there are periods in a child’s life when mental progress seems to be at a standstill. Suddenly he finds he has a special talent for work with his hands. He respects himself and commands the respect of others.”24
Bush surely respected his ability to shape material into useful things. During high school, he could be found handling test tubes and triggering chemical reactions in the basement of the church parsonage, where his family lived. A rare childhood photograph shows him tapping away with a hammer at what seems to be a dry cell hooked to a clock. He wore a white, long-sleeved shirt, a stiff white collar and a vest. His chemicals stood secure in a Quaker Oats box, and miscellaneous treasures were stashed in salt-cod boxes. No one knew for sure what he was up to; certainly his father did not. Perry had no aptitude for handiwork; he “couldn’t drive a nail.”25
Tinkering in his basement, Bush shared an activity with many brainy, middle-class boys around the country. The romance of invention—or at the very least, of making something—was contagious. Well aware of his family’s modest means and the absolute requirement for him to turn an education into
a good livelihood, Bush realized that the path of the inventor offered him perhaps the only means of achieving conventional success without sacrificing his maverick leanings.
In the 1890s, an outpouring of technical advances was undermining old patterns in American life—and was a fast path to riches. Bush could not have missed this “technological torrent.” In the first seven years of Bush’s life, the first gas-powered car was perfected; the German Otto Lilienthal made hundreds of successful gliding flights; the first commercial motion picture was screened; and X-rays were used in the treatment of cancer for the first time. The spread of telephony, the phonograph, electricity and radio contributed to the enthusiasm for technology. It was “an epoch of invention and progress unique in the history of the world,” wrote one observer. The period “has been a gigantic tidal wave of human ingenuity and resource, so stupendous in its magnitude, so profound in its thought, so fruitful in its wealth, so beneficent in its results, that the mind is strained and embarrassed in its effort to expand to a full appreciation of it.”26
All this ignited the curiosity of Bush, who surely noticed how technology was exerting a powerful draw on young, middle-class men eager to get ahead. In the early 1900s, newspapers and magazines extolled the feats of young tinkerers, and dime-novelists picked up on the theme. The appeal of the boy-inventor persona lay in the promise of heroism through inspired ideas and shrewd improvisation. Armed with new gadgets, mere boys could outshine their fathers, performing courageous, even lucrative deeds. Their pursuit of invention, meanwhile, demanded a new concept of manhood, one which conceived of education and expertise as the basis for thrilling journeys into the dangerous technological frontier. For some young men, technical exploration was a middle path between the tired refinements of genteel culture and the “animal magnetism” of sport and fitness enthusiasts.
This new concept of manhood neatly mapped Bush’s own evolving sense of self. His future depended on the nation’s capacity to absorb college-bound youths. Hampered by periodic illness, impatient with pomp and molded by his own class and religion, he needed a means of advancement. As he graduated from Chelsea High in 1909, he was an outsider who resented the elite of society but hungered for its recognition too. It didn’t help that his father had “knocked out the family funds” on the college education of his two older sisters. At his father’s urging, Bush decided to attend Tufts. It was an easy choice, of course, but then Bush believed it really did not matter which college he chose because “all of my academic training was circumscribed by the necessity of getting some cash.”27